MESSIAEN: Quatuor pour la Fin de Temps / Christina Åstrand, vln; Johnny Teyssier, cl; Henrik Dam Thomsen, cel; Per Salo, pno / OUR Recordings 6.220679
Olivier Messiaen’s heartfelt and sometimes gut-wrenching Quartet for the End of Time was written while he was a prisoner of war back in the 1940s. He and three fellow-musicians, a violinist, a clarinetist and a cellist, were convinced that they would never get out of that prison camp alive, so Messiaen, who of course was the pianist, wrote this piece for that odd combination. Yet it languished, unpopular and seldom performed, for decades until the chamber group Tashi recorded it for RCA Victor in the 1970s, at which point it became a surprise classical “hit.” Tashi toured college campuses playing it, dressed in tie-dyed Hippie clothing, for a couple of years, thus making it a chamber music staple item.
Over the years, however, I came to realize that the Tashi performance was a bit too hyper and not as heartfelt as the composer wanted. Before he died, Messiaen supervised a recording of the piece with his wife, Yvonne Loriod, playing the piano part along with three excellent chamber musicians (including violinist Christoph Poppen and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s son Manuel on cello). Thus I decided to take a chance on reviewing this new recording played by four Danish musicians. Violinist Christina Åstrand and pianist Per Salo, who also make up the chamber music group Duo Åstrand/Salo) are joined here by two soloists from the Danish National Symphony Orchestra.
This performance is much more in the style of Messiaen’s own supervised version. Despite the rootless chords and unusual harmonies, they play the music lyrically and with quite a bit of “soul.” Of course, the concept of the piece is built around Messiaen’s own personal and peculiar view of Roman Catholicism, which to him was a religion in which Jesus was a mystic and the birds were messengers of God, but as in the case of many religious pieces by J.S. Bach and Frank Martin, one does not have to subscribe to the composer’s religious views in order to appreciate the score. Messiaen created his own mysticism by creating music on the very edge of emotion, music that skims and floats through the mind with occasional explosions of sound representing the fear of the unknown. Richard Stoltzman, a renowned soloist since the early 1980s, was Tashi’s clarinetist in the 1970s and one of the very few classical clarinetists to emulate the sound that Benny Goodman produced on his instrument, which had a more acidic “bite” than that of most classical performers. It worked in its day, particularly in the upper range of his long solo on “Abime des oiseaux” (here we go with the birds again), but Johnny Teyssier has both the upper-range bite and a luscious tone in his low chalumeau register that Stoltzman lacked.
And of course, recording sound has improved greatly even since the early 1970s. Each instrument here is recorded in a slightly reverberant acoustic space which sounds quite natural, and when they play as a group (as on “Intermede”), the balance is perfect. Messiaen wasn’t aiming for an instrumental blend; he knew that the clarinet and piano couldn’t really do so, thus he sometimes only used one or two instruments at a time to create this work.
Although I feel that this performance just misses the feeling of the Loriod-Poppen-Fischer-Dieskau one, it is clearly one of the better ones produced since. A very fine reading of a technically and emotionally difficult score.
—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley
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